By the end of these Olympics, the Centennial Olympic Park bombing had barely survived as a metaphor. In some quarters this terrifying episode had been reduced to the status of a civil disturbance, a weird stunt gone horribly wrong. Midweek musings upon Munich had been overtaken by Atlanta astonishments. There was the fastest man alive (there always is, but this man was faster), the world's best athlete, a swim darling or two, a courageous pixie. There was redemption, endurance and surprise.
The bombing? It stood as a shrill reminder that our national smugness was no longer a geographical right. But as shattering as it was, as scary as it was in the immediate aftermath, it grew distant, crowded into a corner of history by the Olympic hubbub. There were world records, unprecedented doubles, debate over a red-haired, green-eyed swimmer, who was treated more rudely than she should have been. There was a dinger-hitting doc named Dot. And controversy, unrelenting controversy, over a relay team. There was, for the first time, beach volleyball (and a minifuror over a player's breast implants) and mountain biking (no implants that we know of there).
As TV requires, there were tears of defeat, a huge wrestler quaking in his thwarted obsession. And there were tears of victory, another huge wrestler, this one racked by his ultimate achievement. All of which gives you an idea of how much fizz builds up when something as volatile as hope is capped for four years.
There was still the Dream Team, but by now it was regarded as so far outside the realm of fair play that hardly anyone paid attention to its players, except to note their comings and goings at Atlanta restaurants. Instead, other U.S. teams that proved nearly as dominant—women's basketball, soccer and softball—drew the enthusiastic following that the original Dreamers did.
These Olympics had enough at the end to disarm any bomber, and that was as much Atlanta's doing as the athletes'. The host city, in organizing these Games, had decided that nothing, save for a few bus routes (a thousand bus rides, a thousand stories), could be left to chance. Unsure that sports alone would be adequate, or perhaps unsure of its own indigenous appeal, Atlanta developed a parallel universe for its millions of visitors, a kind of county fair—plywood booths and Ferris wheels everywhere you looked. It was a surplus of civic gimcrackery, the likes of which had never been seen at the Olympics.
This was not popular with everybody, especially certain members of the International Olympic Committee, who derided the sidewalk celebration (or merchandising—your pick) as so much "commercial clutter." And it was true that the commercialization of the Games reached some kind of zenith (or nadir—again, your pick) in Atlanta. There's a big bill to foot, no question, but you have to wonder what the foreign visitors were telling the folks back home about America's apparent chemical dependence on Coke.
The circus atmosphere of Atlanta's downtown streets may have been inevitable, but in Centennial Olympic Park, a 21-acre preserve of corporate tents and sponsored soundstages laid out over bricks engraved with the names of individual donors, it was institutionalized. There was the Bud bar and the Swatch museum, and long lines to get into both. The park was a kind of town square for these Games, and as strange as it was, it probably characterized this nation better than the events themselves. The park had no architectural pedigree, no history, no sense of importance. Yet it drew huge crowds who were there maybe as much to cool off in the Olympic-rings fountain as to trade souvenir pins (is this a great country or what?). And families, with tickets or without, seemed to be having fun.
And fun is what seemed most at risk after the bombing. This park-cum-block party became ground zero, a pipe bomb exploding during a late-night concert, the mall's congenial spirit instantly destroyed by crude shrapnel, screws and nails flying into the darkness.
One woman was killed in the blast, a Turkish cameraman died while rushing to cover its aftermath, and 111 people were hurt, jeopardizing the Games, so skittish, were organizers. After the Munich slaughter 24 years before, it seemed a vaguely familiar notion, the Olympics as war: You could go and you might never come back. But it was quickly understood that the bomb, going off in this part of Atlanta, was not a threat to the Olympics but just one more injury to the American way of life.
There was, by the end of the Games, no clear understanding of why the bomb was set off. It was terrible, of course, blood on the bricks where families had walked, a continuing erosion of innocence. But three days later, the athletic events themselves barely missing a beat, the park reopened, scrubbed, reconsecrated, an example of patriotism during a time when medal counts alone were no longer good for much chest thumping. Here they could proclaim, Americans don't back down. Yet they do; just by degrees. If you thought to look around as a mournful trumpet gave way to a rollicking gospel choir during that Tuesday morning ceremony, you might have imagined watchtowers where there were none before.